General Motors and Ford Motor Co. are among a growing number of global corporations operating in China that are limiting travel or forgoing long-held traditions around Lunar New Year to protect their employees against a spreading deadly virus outbreak.
The U.S. automakers, along with HSBC and other companies, are restricting non-essential travel to Wuhan, the epicenter of the contagion that so far has killed 17 people and seen cases spread across the region and even to the U.S. China has kicked off a nationwide screening to tackle the outbreak of the new respiratory virus, with hundreds of millions set to travel during the looming Lunar New Year holiday.
The World Health Organization will decide on Wednesday whether to declare the new coronavirus an international public health emergency, a designation used for complex epidemics that can cross borders. If it does so, it will be the sixth international public health emergency to be declared in the last decade.
“This is an evolving and complex situation,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
”We have issued a global travel advisory for Wuhan,” GM, which has employees from its joint partners in the area, said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “If someone needs to go there, travel has to be business critical and they must get managerial approval .”
Ford, which doesn’t operate in Wuhan, advised its employees not to travel to the city, saying via email that it is “watching the issue and will adapt, as necessary.” Ford’s Chinese operations are located in Chongqing and Nanjing, which are about 900 kilometers (550 miles) and 650 kilometers, respectively, from Wuhan.
The latest death toll in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, rose to 17 by midday on Wednesday, state television quoted the provincial government as saying.
However, the virus has already spread beyond the city to population centers including Beijing, Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong.
The official China Daily newspaper said 544 cases had now been confirmed in the country. Thailand has confirmed four cases, while the United States, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have each reported one.
Social media giant Tencent Holdings was among Chinese corporations that responded swiftly to reduce individual contact. It called off a longstanding annual tradition where top executives hand out Lunar New Year red envelopes in person to employees. The WeChat operator is suspending travel to Wuhan, along with brokerage Citic Securities Co., according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named as they aren’t authorized to speak publicly.
The Beijing office of China Life Insurance Co., the country’s second-biggest insurer by market value, also suspended business travel to Wuhan and asked employees to avoid an area within 62 miles of the city, according to a memo seen by Bloomberg News. Those who have been to Wuhan or nearby should work remotely for at least seven days before returning to office.
Representatives for Citic, China Life and Tencent didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., also known as Foxconn, is mulling contingency plans to deal with the outbreak, founder Terry Gou said. The firm, best known for assembling iPhone components, asked Wuhan-based staff and their families to stay away from a corporate gathering on Wednesday. Gou warned that China lacks enough drugs and medical equipment to handle a coronavirus pandemic.
“2020 is full of challenges,” Gou said Tuesday at an annual party in Taipei. “The outbreak of coronavirus is one of them.”
Confirmed cases have stretched to six locations outside mainland China, including the first diagnosis in the U.S. -- a resident of Washington state who had recently returned from China.
The rumor mill is starting to churn in Hong Kong, where large parts of the population are now wearing face masks and hand sanitizers are readily available at offices, apartment buildings and hotels. The outbreak of the SARS virus in 2003 is still fresh in people’s memories.
HSBC on Tuesday responded to social media speculation that one of its employees had contracted the virus.
“We’ve been informed that an employee has been diagnosed with Type A influenza,” a spokeswoman said. “The wellness of our employees is always a top priority for us. We have, therefore, conducted thorough cleaning and disinfection of the concerned location, HSBC Centre Level 15.”
Travel by bank employees to Wuhan would be only on a needs basis, an HSBC spokeswoman said.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. has also recommended delaying non-essential business travel to Wuhan, according the people familiar who asked not to be identified discussing an internal matter.
A number of firms, including German carmaker Volkswagen Group, have issued employees advice on how to avoid contagion, including urging them to wash their hands. A VW spokesman said production at its joint ventures in China is unaffected.
FedEx Corp. is supplying surgical masks and alcohol wipes to its employees -- which it calls team members -- and disinfecting facilities in areas where outbreaks have happened. “We are also encouraging our team members to take any signs of illness seriously and seek medical attention as needed,” the delivery giant said via email.
The disease is so far considered less deadly than SARS, which killed 800 people and stunted economic growth across the region.